The lab that goes to the root of the problem
Whenever possible, the researchers from Liège try to collect the plants most likely to have remedial qualities. They collect seeds, leaves, flowers, fruits etc, from the most complete «herbariums». With their local helpers, they also attempt to sort the good grain from the rye-grass of the «traditional» therapists. Some of them are charlatans; others are excellent care-givers, quite capable of conquering malaria. Some even work in perfect harmony with official health centres and hospitals. Finally, others have the best of intentions but are not immune to errors of identification, treatment and dosage.
Identifying the active ingredients
The exact identification of the plant is evidently a fundamental step in the process. The potential for error is great, not least because of the numerous dialects in use in the countries visited. Many plants in Africa or Asia, which are taxonomically different, have the same name in the local vernacular. The help of botanists from the Botanical garden in Meise, or the natural History Museum in Paris is often solicited. After the identification comes the validation step. This involves identifying the active ingredients responsible for the therapeutic effects observed in the field, and to maximise these effects, by the creation of an improved traditional medicine (MTA). This is a huge undertaking, as malaria is a complex disease. Before establishing a foothold in the red blood cells, and manifesting itself with the usual set of classic symptoms, (fever, trembling, yellowing of the eyes and conjunctiva, whitening of the palms of the hands, loss of consciousness etc.), the parasite passes through the liver. «We are concentrating exclusively on the blood phase of Plasmodium falciparum, the only parasite infecting humans that is known to be fatal», Michel Frédérich goes on to say.
In collaboration with the medical microbiology unit of Professor De Mol, the pharmacognosy laboratory is currently analysing some forty plant species, harvested mainly in Burkina Faso and Rwanda. (In the former there are 600,000 cases of malaria recorded every year, one third of which concerns children less than five years of age). Burkina Faso is currently collaborating with Jardins du Monde. On the request of local populations, this French NGO carries out ethno-botanical studies, enumerates the use of medicinal plants in the southern countries, and tries to make the most of local species whose effectiveness and non-toxicity have been scientifically demonstrated. Several plants analysed in Liège at this point in time, have shown interesting antiplasmodium activity. It remains to split the extracts into their component parts, and to try to isolate the pure substances that act against the parasite, and to identify the active ingredients by means of different spectroscopic techniques, (mass spectrometry, and magnetic resonance imaging).